There’s much to see and do, eat and explore around Christchurch, reports Leonie Coombes
Christchurch’s spectacular surrounds offer visitors a host of activities including horse-riding at Terrace Down, main picture; right, from top, Lake Tekapo, Akaroa, jetboating in Rakaia Gorge, Otahuna Lodge HE South Island of New Zealand is about 800km long and holds at least 12 times more sheep than people. Be careful that your itinerary isn’t also a wee bit woolly. Concentrate on one region offering plenty of variety and take it slowly, especially when motoring. With its many famous features and hidden treasures, Canterbury is a perfect choice.
This central region fans out from the east coast toward the Alps. To convey the image of its alluvial, patchwork plains and green hills, follow one directive: think of England. Clearly, the district’s founders did.
The rural city of Christchurch, named after an Oxford college, is entwined by the Avon River. In the Botanic Gardens rowers passing oak and willow probably forget they are closer to the South Pole than to Britain.
Those enthralled by Antarctica will find Christchurch has plenty on offer. Near the airport is the International Antarctic Centre, providing chilly entertainment, including the Snow and Ice Experience. Here padded visitors can brave extreme polar weather or wimp out in an ice cave.
In the town proper, Canterbury Museum houses Antarctic memorabilia, such as the Snocat and Ferguson tractor utilised by Vivian Fuchs and Edmund Hillary in the 1958 trans-Antarctic expedition. By comparison, the penknife Roald Amundsen used to sharpen his flagstaff on arrival at the South Pole has a boy scouts quality to it.
A statue of Robert Falcon Scott standing in Oxford Terrace has a story of its own. Sculpted by his wife, one leg and arm remain unfinished because of a dispute over her fee; an amount that now looks trifling for such a moving effigy.
Historic Warners Hotel accommodated many Antarctic explorers, including Scott and Ernest Shackleton. In 1901 it hosted a farewell dinner for Scott before he left on his first journey, and the menu still adorns the wall. Lamb, pigeon, hare, flounder, duckling, tongue and trifle are only some of the courses that were probably recalled wistfully on the ice. Though refurbished, Warners retains its 19th-century atmosphere.
So too does the vibrant Arts Centre, a collection of shops and cafes occupying neogothic buildings spread around open squares. Browsing here can fill hours, especially on weekends when an outdoor market with more than 80 stalls is held in all weather.
Like a country matron after a kiwifruit daiquiri, Christchurch loosens up after dark. His Lordships Lane, formerly a derelict warehouse area, is now packed with intimate restaurants and bars hosting live bands. Fat Eddie’s, a mecca for jazz lovers, packs in the crowds every night.
Christchurch is such an engrossing place there is a temptation to venture no further. But if the prospect of good roads passing through sensational countryside entices you, this won’t be a thorny issue.
Thorny issues belong, in fact, in Timaru, south of Christchurch. The Trevor Griffiths Rose Garden near the water at Caroline Bay displays old varieties and modern crosses from David Austin while Timaru Botanic Gardens has New Zealand’s largest collection of species roses. Prune your schedule to visit the Rose Festival from November 26-30.
Some of us, however, would rather stop and smell the grapes. Most of Canterbury’s vineyards are situated in the stunning Waipara Valley, an hour north of Christchurch, but a few boutique establishments hide elsewhere. West of Timaru at Pleasant Point is Opihi Vineyard, living up to its Maori name, which means good growth.
Lunch on the sunny veranda of an 1882 limestone cafe, pinot noir in hand, can easily stretch into the afternoon.
Minutes away is Centre Hill Cottage Farm, a family-sized bungalow with a lawn tennis court and whimsical touches for guests, such as the complimentary basket of organic produce and outdoor bathtub for star-gazing. (Just ignore the sheep staring at you. To them you’re part of a minority group.)
Through vivid green fields, pine hedgerows and waving flax I veer northwest to glacier- fed Lake Tekapo. Its milky-blue colour, caused by sunlight striking suspended rock particles in the water, is arresting. On the shore stands the tiny Chapel of the Good Shepherd, a stony memorial to local pioneers. A heavenly view of the lake, framed by a window behind the pulpit, must be appreciated during dull sermons.
Lake Tekapo looks even better from the top of nearby Mt John, a space observatory originally established by the US in the 1960s and now controlled by Canterbury University. Here are the darkest night skies in New Zealand. Tours of the facility are run by Trekkies (somehow you can just tell) who become animated over telescopes and white spatter on computer screens. Drive 300m up Mt John’s windy peak or join stick-wielding, rosy-cheeked ramblers who huff to the top and collapse over a hot chocolate at the excellent Astro Cafe.
Go even higher with Air Safaris, which offers tours of the Alps in planes with large individual windows. Pilots deliver a commentary while starkly beautiful but forbidding glaciers and mountains loom up. Mt Cook’s peak is revealed in breathtaking detail and a 50-minute traverse leaves even seasoned travellers wide-eyed.
Reluctantly returned to ground, I succumb to the comforts of the new Peppers Bluewater Resort at Lake Tekapo Village. Its wellfurnished villas with kitchens and flat-screen televisions particularly appeal to families.
About one hour’s drive west of Christchurch is luxurious Terrace Downs High Country Resort, an 18-hole golf course overlooked by the Southern Alps. Beautifully appointed chalets adorn this secluded retreat near locations that featured in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Non-golfers are catered for with walking, horse-riding, archery and even thrill-seeking.
In one breathless morning I enjoy putting lessons on the green and a helicopter tour. The chopper buzzes over Mt Hutt, where famously long runs make it a popular skiing destination. Guests at Terrace Downs can book helicopter rides to the slopes, making it possible to ski and golf in one day.
I land back on the fairway feeling elated, but there’s more. Minutes away on the icy blue waters of Rakaia Gorge a throbbing jetpowered boat with a grinning driver is waiting. Salmon fishermen look on mournfully. My conscience is pricked, but ever so briefly. Screaming with nervous laughter, our group of five cling on for dear life as driver Jim zooms through shallows, hurtles at limestone walls and chucks the boat into a spin that throws glacial melt in our faces.
It’s a hard act to follow but a more subdued kind of boating awaits at Akaroa, an hour south of Christchurch on the Banks Peninsula. Catamaran cruises around the harbour reveal rare Hector dolphins, seals and penguins, as well as some fascinating geology. This playground for marine life is the caldera of a long extinct volcano that gradually admitted seawater.
Several million years later, French whalers settled in Akaroa and left their mark in the architecture and restaurants. The village demands leisurely exploration and Matua Garden Retreat, a romantic B&B in the hills overlooking the harbour, provides a homely base for sightseeing.
This could be the beginning instead of the end. Canterbury has so much to offer that no itinerary can include it all. It provides a reason to return here because, rather like the sheep population, opportunities for pleasure just keep expanding. Leonie Coombes was a guest of Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism. www.christchurchnz.com www.festivalofroses.co.nz www.centrehillcottage.com www.terracedowns.co.nz www.peppers.com.au www.matuagardens.co.nz